Wax On—Wax Off
(Joseph W. Hall)

One of the disappointing things about Zen is that I always thought there was going to be more wax on – wax off. Like most people, my idea of Zen was formed at the movies and in dormitory conversations and in the occasional buzzed hot tub speculations. The twin pillars of eastern philosophy were Shogun and the Karate Kid, where Arnold from Happy Days turns out to be a totally cool old Samurai dude living in LA who teaches young Daniel-san karate by making him wax his car over and over again. Just when Daniel-san is about to quit, Mr Miyagi gives him his first karate lesson and Daniel-San discovers that he already knows how to block the attacks—it’s the same motion as putting the wax on and wiping it off.

So of course the first time I headed into the dokusan room I was all ready for some wax on – wax off. Instead I met a teacher who was friendly, interested in my goals and didn’t grunt at all. The teacher seemed particularly concerned that I wasn’t experiencing unnecessary pain and had no special chores for me to do that would sharpen the skills I would need for enlightenment. She suggested I go back to the Zendo and continue to stare at the wall.

I always forget that it’s not wax on – wax off if you are expecting it. Along the way there are moments of this, but by and large, my progress has been steady.

Then there is Ed Brown.

Edward Espe Brown was ordained by Suzuki Roshi in 1971 and is very much a hands-on practitioner of the way. He’s well known as a chef, leads sitting groups and retreats all over northern California, and his bread making classes are sold out and his cookbooks move steadily off the shelves. Me, I like him because he is a renegade, working with vipassana, yoga, chi gung, tomatoes, radishes, pretty much whatever he can get his hands on. He’s one of those teachers that gets that “not really zen” look from the other kids, and he knows it. And he happened to be at Tassajara one Sangha Week, and that is how I found myself listening to him give a talk that I delighted in, listening to him laugh at himself, watching his eyes sparkle as he talked about the various objects in the world, and generally advocate following a path of loving revolution that went all the way back to 1971. It was only in the last five minutes of the talk that a structure seemed to arise as he talked about this imagination exercise and then out of the blue he said “Please, do not rest your hands in your lap during Zazen.” And that was the end of the talk.

A few weeks later I was back in Austin, but the oddness of that comment continued to haunt me. At Tassajara, Ed seemed very clear in advocating that we follow our own hearts. The last thing you expected him to say was “I think you should do it my way.” There was a mystery here and it was drawing me in. A few weeks later, I began doing what he said …

If you look around a Zendo (despite the fact that you are not supposed to) it becomes apparent that, over time, most people become fairly rigorous about the form—with the exception of the mudra. Generally we rest our hands in our laps. This is not where Dogen says they go, but it feels natural and our hands get heavy after the bell rings, and everyone else is facing a wall. The correct position of the hands is with the little fingers against the hara, a spot on the abdomen about two inches below the navel. The hara is the geographical center of the body/mind, and we are instructed to focus awareness on the sensation of contact between the hands and hara. The second way we get lazy with the mudra is by letting the thumbs drift apart or press against each other. The nexus at the tips of the thumbs should be treated like a spark plug with just the slightest gap built in to allow the current to jump without being dissipated by areas of extraneous contact.

Ed Brown says you should lift your hands up and imagine your heart beating, realize the heart/mind is located in your body, not the head. In his exercise you examine your breathing and feel the air wash in and out and the interplay of oxygen and C02 as your breath crosses though your lungs and into the blood stream. The hemoglobin that carries your breath enters your heart and is pumped through a vortex into your left shoulder. You can feel this, and sense it, as it moves through your arm and into your hand. Trace this energy downward and feel the connection between your left hand and your heart and allow the strength of your heart to lift and support your left hand. Let your attention find the thumbs and tune their position until you can feel the electrical charge to jump the gap to the right hand. Simply observe as the circles of energy complete themselves and return to the breath where the lungs exchange the breath with the world.

And as I tried this I discovered that he was right and there seemed to be lightness to my hands when I did the self-guided meditation thing. This of course is not Zen, but I discovered that I if I did this for a minute, the effect on my hands would last longer. I started holding my hands at my hara even when I didn’t think anyone was looking. I noticed that this was improving the curve of my back just a little and this helped keep me motivated to keep me going. It started with five minutes, then ten, and after a few months It seemed almost natural to hold my hands at my hara for the entire period. My posture was finally, if not perfect, at least finally conforming to Dogen’s Fukan-zazengi.

My feeling at this point was probably pretty similar to yours right now, Uh, we’ve come all this way but perfect posture just doesn’t seem like the payoff I was expecting from a story that starts with a radical from the summer of love. This is good but what about wax on-wax off?

So try this … First, let’s make sure you’ve got the basics covered. I will assume that you have comfortably mastered the art of stabilizing your lower body, your knees are loose and solid on the mat and, together with your sit bones, anchor your spine on a solid tripod. Your back is curved with the weight of your head centered over your pelvis, and the weight of your body hangs easily on a structure of bone. Pain is minimal, and when the bell rings, you can stand up immediately. Check?

OK, we are going to try to create dynamic tension and try to sit right in the very center of this energy. There are four basic kinds of tension at work:

Vulnerability vs. Stability Stillness vs. Movement Effort vs. Relaxation Solitude vs Connection

Lets bring your hands up to your hara so that the pinkie fingers are now lightly touching your stomach at a point two fingers below the navel. Hold them there. When the slightest pain arises, sway left to right about an inch either way to loosen up the muscles. Do this for a few seconds whenever you notice tightness coming on in your back. It is important to stay ahead on this as it is much more difficult to deal with muscle pain after the constriction has taken root. Hold your mudra at your hara until it hurts and then continue with the pain, examining it, being very curious about it. Fascinating, isn’t it? OK, sorry, when you start to feel seriously frustrated, drop your hands. Rest a few minutes, and when you notice you have forgotten how frustrated you were—lift your hands up off your lap.

While you are doing this, practice Ed Brown’s visualization exercise. It is probably vipassana, but nobody knows so let’s just go with it. Really focus on your mudra; ignore the temptation to shift to an interpretive version of the cosmic mudra. Just like suspending your hands—this is an exercise—hold as long as you can, relax, repeat.

Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate on the point of contact between your hands and body. Feel your breath rise and fall, the oxygen enter your body and wash into your bloodstream, flow into your hands, the arcing of electrical energy across your fingertips and back to your lungs as it returns to the world before your eyes. Concentrate. You are trying to know these rhythms intimately.

This will seem extraneous but do it anyway; when the bell rings, watch the priests and senior practitioners carefully. Stare particularly at their hands. You are looking for a certain looseness which not everyone has, an arcing grace that somehow seems to almost cut the corners that mark the various points of the bow. Watch them, stare at them, forget what your name is and just watch them until their movements produce actual emotional reactions in your body.

Do all of this for several months at least. At some point you will notice the bell rings one day and your hands are still at your hara and your meditation was like a series of waves. This in itself is beautiful, but it’s still not why we are on this page.

Now if you are the type who hates being told how the movie ends, stop reading here. If on the the other hand you’re like me and honestly wouldn’t last two days on Mr Miyagi’s truck, then you should probably read on.


So you keep going and zazen is good and it is nice to know that if Dogen saw you right now he wouldn’t hit you with the kyosaku stick, but you still haven’t seen the real change. Then one day the bell rings and your hands seem to float gracefully upwards to connect before your eyes. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you are not at all sure that these are your hands. They just seem to be acting a little different. Soon after, you are talking and you notice your hands moving, expressing the words as they arise, delineating your ideas as you speak.

Now, pause and look at what you’ve done. By holding your hands up, you have strengthened the muscles that support your arms, allowing your hands to rise up effortlessly, almost floating in front of you. The muscles in your hands that you developed started making stronger movements and the surrounding muscles have compensated, allowing for a wider range of expressive movement. You are making subtle gestures now without even knowing what they mean. After spending hundreds of hours moving with your breath, your attention intertwining the motion of your hands to your heart, you have begun to synchronize the vagus nerve impulses to your core systems with the motor nerves in your hands. This is a deep, deep, form of honesty. You naturally circumscribe the world as you see it arise. Also, there is an eagerness and an ambidexterity that emerges, and it is simply fun to follow your hands as you enter a room and watch them turn on a light switch, lift up a glass of water and dance in arcs through the tasks of arranging and moving objects in time and space.

Also, you begin to notice something as you feel the current of energy move across your hands: When your mudra is composed, you’re not so sleepy. You’ve created a handheld dynamo, a little fission reactor that has the power to wake you up.

And most importantly, your mind begins to notice something: these hands that move so well in sync with the body require very little guidance. The whirring machinery of sending orders to the limbs seems oddly silent, and naturally a person notices smoothness and a quietness.

Betty Gross
About Joseph W. Hall

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